One Friday in Napa book coverParallel Loves, Unforgotten Grief

Author: Jennifer Hamm

Death is the great divider, and the great evener too. Vene has run out of chances to reconcile with her mother, Olivia, who is an austere, judgmental, cold woman. Now Olivia is dying of cancer, sequestered in their Napa Valley home, no longer able to care for her vineyard, to hold soirees, to be the cold and efficient hostess. She is dying mostly as she lived: alone. But Vene is her daughter, and as such, duty calls. Plus, Vene still has questions. Why did her mother never love her? Why has she refused to accept Vene’s second marriage – her marriage for love? Why is there so much distance between Olivia and her family? Why does their sumptuous, beautiful home always feel so empty, so devoid of life and love?

As One Friday in Napa oscillates between past and present, we watch mother and daughter living their lives, reckoning with the meanings of duty, of love, of desire, of parenthood. It’s 1996 for Vene, and she is mad and distraught. She is losing a mother, after all. But has she ever really known this woman who refused to care for her, to show any form of pride, of support? And Vene also blames her mother for a heartrending choice.

In 1946, however, Olivia is a different woman. A passionate, willful, strong woman. As her husband travels Europe with his important career, she is left alone, childless, seemingly unwanted. She makes friends with Mark, the cook, and through him learns the beauty of preparing something with her own hands, the love that comes through good food and wine, through close friends. And then there is Victor, the handsome winemaker who speaks of Italy and second chances. Unlike her stoic husband, Victor is one with the land, and soon their love becomes all consuming. Soon, Olivia will have to choose.

The only thread that connects the past and present is an old cookbook with notes in the margins, and through it Vene learns her mother’s history, and she finally grows to an understanding and a certain acceptance.

The story is obvious; from the beginning, we realize what Vene fails to see, we comprehend the choice and the resulting bitterness, the death of the soul that followed and the years and years of unspoken secrets. Vene, self-absorbed as she is and highly emotional, takes longer to follow the breadcrumbs of the past, to discover another recognizable self in a young woman who had not yet given up.

Image by inno kurnia from Pixabay

Of course, the women are ultimately the same, divided only between the choices they made. One choice led to misery, one supposedly to joy. The supposed moral: follow your heart, consequences (and kids) be damned. Yet, of course, Vene herself, the one who followed her heart and allowed her own affair to blossom, is hardly the happily-ever-after heroine. It’s Oliva who captures our hearts, who rules the narrative.

Both women, ultimately, are selfish and inexplicable in their own rights. They are both overly dramatic and yet closeted emotionally. The selflessness of one is more imposed by misunderstanding than anything else – that romantic double-speak (or failure to speak) that is so common in these types of emotive, star-crossed beach reads.

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For example, Olivia’s lover leaves her, supposedly for her own good, due to a miscommunication and epically bad timing (que husband’s entry at the wrong moment). She subsequently finds out she is pregnant and tries to kill herself. Hardly what one can see as following through with duty . . . Likewise, a married Vene starts to have an affair. Her husband isn’t bad, just boring, and unlike Olivia, she has few qualms. She throws herself into the affair, yet when she becomes pregnant, she succumbs to a 20-minute conversation with her mother, rushing out to have an abortion that she later regrets. Hardly the act of a “free” character who does what she wants . . .

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Despite the attempted moral, both characters are severally flawed, and I’d argue that neither has found much happiness. They tend to overreact to everything, which makes for great drama, misunderstandings, and lots of lots of horrible stuff that needs forgiveness. It doesn’t make either Vene or Olivia especially endearing or realistic though, but what it does do is create lots of high emotion and a surprisingly moving ending.

Is it predictable? Yep. Is it good – also, surprisingly, yes. One Friday in Napa is still beach-read material, but it’s enjoyable beach read material, like a good soap opera, with plenty of betrayals, secrets, epically messed-up characters, and everyone has a complete inability to communicate, which just stokes that good, good drama some more. It’s not my usual genre, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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